The question this week is pretty simple:
How has this team matched up to pre-season expectations and what needs to be done to achieve those hopes over the rest of the run? Obviously the simple answer is "national championship" for the former and "win every game" for the latter, but given what we know about the team an the teams we must face, there should be some specific observations to be made.
This season, admittedly, has been quite strange for me. Since the sixth grade, I watched Alabama with one rather important question in mind: "When are we getting back to play for the national championship?" And it took 17 years, two NCAA probations, about a dozen coaching changes and a variety of small embarrassments along the way (long losing streaks to Tennessee and Auburn, for example), but we got there last year, in what one could easily argue was the best season in the history of the program (and possibly the entire SEC).
So how do you follow that up? When everything finally comes together, every break goes your way and you just can't lose ... what's left to accomplish the following season? How do you write a sequel for the best movie ever?
Unlike some columnists — lookin at you, Scarbinsky and Finebaum — I never really harbored any worries about "repeating" in 2010. My biggest concern was how this team carried itself as defending champs: would our guys be satisfied, and just give up at the first sign of adversity? Or would they fight?
Results have been kind of mixed thus far. The team has played like champs in spurts — the second half vs. Arkansas, the first half vs. Florida, the third quarter in Knoxville — and appeared to be on cruise control the rest of the time. Nagging injuries haven't helped: not having Marcell Dareus and Courtney Upshaw at full strength has adversely affected our ability to pressure the passer, and Dont'a Hightower still looks slow coming off last year's knee injury. That means the defense hasn't been as dominant as last year's (though it's looked much better the last two weeks), which means that the same lousy offensive efforts we had in 2009 — Ole Miss and South Carolina, specifically — were enough to get us beat (fortunately, it only happened once). Viewed through that prism, 2010 feels like a disappointment thus far.
On balance, though, I realize that prism is mildly insane. When I mentioned to one of my Auburn cousins that the fans were growing impatient during the Ole Miss game, he responded, "3 losses in the past 31 games should test anyone's patience."
Seriously, what exactly are we complaining about? The team is ranked in the top 10, and has all its goals still in front of it: SEC West, SEC, BCS. And we just pwned Tennessee for the fourth consecutive season (and 5th out of the last 6). If that's not enough to at least give us some perspective on this deal, I'm going to have to concede the whole "Bammers has CUH-RAZY irrational expectations!!!!1!!" myth circulated by the national press.
More to the point, as we discussed in this space Sunday, Saturday night in Neyland restored some of the "EFF YOU" intensity that's been a trademark of the program since the beginning of 2008. My favorite story that came out of Saturday (and Cecil Hurt mentioned it on Finebaum, which is probably as close to verification as we'll get): Saban wrote the score of the Auburn-LSU game on the board in the locker room at halftime, then passively informed the players that at least SOMEBODY in the state was representing us well.
Maybe that was the light bulb for the rest of the season, maybe not — the season could still fall apart in the final month (three of the final 4 are ranked). Even so, at least we know the squad won't go down without a fight.
It should be a fun final month. Roll Tide.